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Coronavirus Update: What patients and families need to know

Can Vaccines Cause Autism?

Monday, April 28, 2014

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by social and communication impairments and restricted interest in repetitive behaviors, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. New research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in 68 children in the United States have autism.

Some parents are concerned that vaccines or vaccine additives cause autism. The vaccines and additives that cause the most concern are the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine; thimerosal, a vaccine preservative that contains mercury; and the idea that babies get too many vaccines.

While there have not been credible links found to show that vaccines cause autism, the risks of not vaccinating children can be serious.

Where the link began:
The notion that the MMR vaccine causes autism was raised in 1998 by a British researcher named Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield’s study was published in the medical journal The Lancet and recounted that eight children in his study developed intestinal problems and autism soon after receiving the MMR vaccine. The research was later deemed fraudulent as Wakefield had manipulated evidence and broken ethical codes.

Debunking the myths:
Extensive research has shown that vaccines are safe and that there is no link to autism.

Researchers performed several studies, testing Wakefield’s claim, comparing the results of hundreds of thousands of children who had not received the MMR vaccine with hundreds of thousands who did. The researchers found that regardless of whether the MMR vaccine was administered or not, each group carried the same risk of developing autism.

The same results were found when researchers compared groups of children that received vaccines with thimerosal to groups of children who received vaccines without thimerosal. Even though no link was found between thimerosal and autism, since 2001 it has not been used a preservative in childhood vaccines, with the exception of some influenza vaccines, according to the CDC.

Also, before vaccines are licensed, they are tested with existing vaccines to ensure mixing of vaccines does not alter the safety or the effectiveness of any vaccine.

Risks of not vaccinating:
There have been recent studies released supporting the current vaccination schedules as a way to keep the population immune to vaccine preventable diseases. One of the main concerns of parents delaying vaccination schedules in their children, is a risk of negatively affecting herd immunity – the protection of unvaccinated individuals by those immune to diseases – to keep vaccine-preventable diseases at bay.

“I see delaying vaccination as a public health risk and a threat to children. There are still whooping cough outbreaks going around and we need to protect kids,” said Children’s National Health System’s Clinical Psychologist Anne Pradella Inge, PhD, who treats patients with autism in the Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders. “I worry about those kids entering schools with others who are vaccinated and they’re not.”

If you suspect your child has autism:
While the cause of autism is unknown, researchers have identified a number of genes associated with the disorders. If parents are concerned that a child has autism, it is first important to be aware of children’s developmental milestones at each age, so that parents can monitor the child’s development and progression, talk to a developmental pediatrician, or visit Children’s National’s Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders.

“If you’re concerned, make an appointment with a specialist for an evaluation,” said Inge. “At CASD, we have structured our intake process to expedite evaluations for kids who haven’t been seen before and whose primary concern is diagnostic clarification.”

The team of experts evaluate the speech and psychology of a child from infancy to young adults. They can make a treatment plan combining the expertise from other Children’s divisions like, Developmental Pediatrics, Genetics, and Neurology.


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